Drupal Hosting Solutions: Acquia vs On-Premise

May 20, 2020
By Andy Carlberg,
Associate Principal Architect

Hosting web applications presents a lot of challenges. Designing and building a valuable experience for your users is difficult enough, why should you increase the effort by managing a complicated technical stack? Acquia offers a purpose-built Drupal hosting solution that lets you focus on the most important part–your users.

Three Types of Service Models

Before we examine the benefits of Acquia as a Drupal host, we need to understand what hosting models are available for Drupal. Generally speaking, there are three categories of hosting service models, each offering a different level of sophistication and requiring the technical knowledge to match1. Selecting one of these models depends significantly on the project’s requirements. Let’s compare these models and examine the separation of responsibility for managing each aspect of the technical stack.

Management Responsibility Across Hosting Models

  On-Premises IaaS PaaS
Content     x     x      x
Web Application     x     x      x
Data     x     x      x
CDN     x     x  
Runtime     x     x  
OS     x     x  
Networking     x     x  
Virtualization     x    
Servers     x    
Storage     x    

X = You Manage

On-Premises

On-Premises covers self-hosted and self-managed hardware–no cloud involved. In this model, you manage the entire stack from the bare hardware and networking through the web application and its data. Often this model requires a team of expert technicians, administrators, and developers to manage safely and securely at scale. It provides a high degree of flexibility and customization but requires significant resources to match.

Infrastructure-as-a-Service

Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) begins to remove some of this complexity by taking over management of the lower levels of the technology stack. In most cases, IaaS services will handle the management of physical hardware, allowing administrators and developers to focus on the software systems required to manage their web applications.

Creating and destroying machines can be done relatively easily, allowing hardware to scale based on traffic or change based on new requirements. However, this still requires a certain level of expertise to keep running services up-to-date with the latest security and bug patches. Usually, the team must have knowledge specific to the IaaS provider in addition to sysadmin level IT skills.

Examples

Google Cloud Platform, AWS, Azure

Platform-as-a-Service

Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) further removes complexity, allowing developers and site administrators to focus directly on the web application. PaaS providers handle the management of the entire technical stack while the site owner is still managing the web application and its data. This provides an excellent balance of customization in the web application without requiring a large, knowledgeable team to manage infrastructure. 

PaaS providers such as Acquia provide purpose-built solutions for deploying custom, scalable web applications like Drupal. These are carefully tuned environments based on years of experience that may not exist in smaller IT teams.

Examples

Acquia, Google App Engine, AWS Elastic Beanstalk, Azure Marketplace

Selecting a Service Model

Platform-as-a-Service is the Default

For most web applications, a PaaS model will provide a strong value proposition. By providing cloud solutions maintained by experts, they can offer economies of scale that smaller IT teams cannot attain on their own. Expensive hardware no longer needs to be purchased.

In turn, this removes the maintenance overhead for cooling, power, and other support systems. In the PaaS hosting model, software maintenance is handled by the provider, allowing your internal support personnel to focus on other tasks. Any maintenance tasks that remain can usually be run directly by developers or other project team members.

Additionally, the costs associated with a PaaS model like Acquia’s are more spread out, increasing the business' agility in managing costs. By removing the need for hardware purchase and setup, the initial cost is reduced significantly and capital expenditures can be made elsewhere. This also makes the application team more Agile in how it responds to changes and new opportunities by providing additional flexibility in the hosting costs. As needs scale or new opportunities appear, it can be much easier to grow or alter hosting needs.

When to Choose IaaS or On-Premises

There are some circumstances where taking on additional maintenance responsibilities may be required, driving your application toward an IaaS or On-Premises model. Most importantly, legal concerns and other policies may prevent you from selecting a cloud solution. Special privacy concerns might require an on-premises model to maintain strict control over personally identifiable information or other sensitive data. It’s also possible that existing agreements and contracts require the use of a particular service. In these cases, it might be valuable to assess when a switch might be made or if a PaaS service can be worked into existing infrastructure while following applicable policies.

It’s also possible you have a strong technical reason to select another service model. If the application has very specific technical requirements, it may be necessary to host it in an IaaS solution or even On-Prem to allow customization of the stack in ways Acquia doesn’t allow. These would generally be exceptionally unique circumstances driven by heavily customized features or specific networking needs.

Why Acquia?

If you’ve decided that a PaaS solution is right for you, Acquia is a PaaS provider specializing in Drupal. Dries Buytaert, Drupal creator, is both the co-founder and CTO of Acquia. Buytaert along with Jay Batson founded Acquia to provide infrastructure, support, and services to enterprise organizations using Drupal. In addition, Acquia was created to help Drupal scale, make Drupal easier, and to empower a thriving network of Drupalists around the world. Today, Drupal is about one of every 40 websites used.

Acquia gives Drupal development teams access to targeted solutions offering features that smaller IT teams can’t reasonably support. This provides a compelling value proposition, often letting site owners run services that are more complex than their team would otherwise be able to maintain. The technical stack can be more robust, improving value, reducing time-to-market, and reducing costs.

Fully-tuned Stack

Acquia is able to apply an immense amount of time and resources towards carefully tuning its stack to provide optimal hosting for Drupal and related technologies. This lets them provide situation-specific efficiencies and support that are simply not reasonable to expect from self-managed solutions. Acquia has spent many years refining the hosting environments for hundreds of clients. This level of sophistication is not achievable for smaller IT teams.

Improved Access and Support

Sites hosted with Acquia are generally faster and more reliable than sites hosted internally. Acquia operates at a large, global scale and has the networking and storage locations to support such an operation. Some of these technologies that are required at scale are difficult to maintain.

Acquia provides these technologies for teams that would otherwise be unable to support them. For example, Content Delivery Networks and robust caching tools provide fast, global access to your site through local access nodes, reducing load times and improving the user's experience.

In addition to faster access, Acquia also offers additional support for your site. This reduces or removes the need for an on-call rotation of technicians to maintain the site. Acquia hosting comes with a defined Service-Level Agreement (SLA) setting contractual obligations for reliability of the site. In other words, Acquia takes on the burden of maintaining the servers 24 hours a day.

Additionally, Acquia provides added reliability features and tools such as New Relic, recording important diagnostic information for problems on the site. Features like these can drastically improve the user's experience with your brand without placing a heavy burden on support teams.

More Robust Security and Recovery

Along with the added support features, sites hosted with Acquia are more secure and better equipped to recover from incidents. Because the technology stack is managed by Acquia support professionals, security patches, and bug fixes are applied regularly and the stack supporting the application is constantly monitored.

Acquia also offers edge protection solutions, defending against Denial of Service and other HTTP attacks. Acquia will even support Drupal in some situations. For example, Acquia has provided additional protections on occasions when vulnerabilities in Drupal have been found. These sort of specialized benefits offer great protection for your users and your business.

In the event an incident does occur and recovery is necessary, it is easy to restore the application to a prior state. Data backups are taken daily and databases can be quickly and easily rolled back through a simple, drag-and-drop admin user interface (UI). The same UI can be used to rollback code to match. These features let development teams react very quickly to incidents and quickly get the application running again.

Delivery Tooling

Because Acquia is already managing the technical stack beneath the application, they must support delivery and deployments. This makes deployments much easier. Acquia’s simple drag-and-drop interface makes it easy to move code across environments. Acquia’s Cloud Hooks and Pipelines features provide a complete Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment solution, out of the box. These pipelines are tailor-made for Acquia and Drupal and are generally much easier to set up, drastically reducing time-to-market for new features.

The Benefits of Acquia

Each application and team has unique needs that will naturally push a project towards a given hosting model. For exceptionally complex or custom applications, an IaaS or On-Premise solution may be required. However, these models lose the benefits Acquia provides. For most Drupal projects, the additional security, support, and tooling, as well as performance improvements, make Acquia the right choice.


1Commonly, a fourth category called Software-as-a-Service is included but this model doesn’t fit Drupal’s customizability well and has been intentionally excluded from this article.